About Me, Misc, Statistics

Why I got a statistics masters during my PhD

To be honest, I used to think statistics was bullshit.

I went to grad school to study mathematical modeling in cell biology, and my research project was on enzyme kinetics. My university didn’t have many relevant courses – a modeling in ecology course, a couple on biophysics/protein modeling. So I looked up what math bio programs were like in other universities. The motivation is probably familiar to other biology-backgrounded math biologists – considering yourself a math biologist is really hard when you don’t have the coursework to back it up (even if it doesn’t really matter in many cases). Most courses from math bio degree programs weren’t available, but probability was, so I decided to take it.

I quickly discovered that I’d underestimated the difficulty of the course. After getting an F on the first two exams I went to see the professor. He encouraged me to stick with it, and pointed out this was the hardest class in the entire department. I stuck with it, although the possibility of my semester GPA dropping below a 3.0 meant I could lose my assistantship. But I ended up with a B-, and said fuck it, let’s go for the degree. The hard part’s over.(Apparently I forgot about the nights spent recalculating my GPA like a freshman).

Cross stitch I made for my adviser, and *the* book on statistics: Casella & Berger.

That ended up not being fully true – although that was the hardest course I’d ever taken, some other things made completing the degree stressful. Between the departmental assholes, and failing the written exam twice, I nearly quit a dozen times. (One time, I was about to quit when I got to work with an amazing professor for a consulting session – I will talk about that later). In the end, the desire to stick it to “them” and make the profs who believed in me proud won.

So, why did I get a statistics master’s? Not any reason in particular. (Just consider how intense the imposter syndrome is, haha). But I gained an appreciation for both statistics and my ability to be very stubborn and stupid. After all, if I could stick out the stress and effort for something I used to not even believe in, I would probably be able to stick out the things I do believe in.

Before I took all the classes for the degree, I thought statistics was bullshit because that’s how a lot of people talk about it and understand it – a magical number that makes your results publishable. Learning the math behind regression and probability distributions helped me understand why some of those numbers make sense. Or rather, the numbers are fine, its just their interpretation that gets iffy. So in that sense, I was correct! If you don’t believe me (or if you do), check out the book How to Lie with Statistics – it’s pretty cheap, short, and entertaining read from a used bookseller, or you can click the link to see a PDF scan. It’s about 70 years old at this point, but still quite relevant.

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